Small Birds Singing, Even As They Fly Away
I don’t remember how old I was when my father started regularly sitting me down beside him on the living room couch and reading to me from his favorite poets, but I do know that I was young enough to understand very little of what the poems meant, that I was still innocent enough to be unconcerned with their meaning. I sat there secure and happy beside my father, who smelled of cocktails and his own tanned skin, who sat beside me in shorts, often, even in the chilly house in winter. He loved to intone those poems in a deep theatrical voice that he never used otherwise, with a self-conscious, oratorical enunciation that surprised and even frightened me a little. He seemed another person when he read poems to me, and yet he seemed exactly himself. This realization was as fascinating as it was disconcerting. My father, whom I (mistakenly) thought myself uncannily similar to, had this odd and wonderful secret self that spoke when he read those flinty poems. So, listening to him read, I wondered who else I might be and still be me.
I breathed with those poems, too. I listened to the ways they swayed and knocked and drew silence around themselves. He loved “The Second Coming,” “Mending Wall,” and “Once By The Pacific.” This last he explained to me once, though the explanation didn’t matter much, not next to the feeling of those low hairy clouds and the sea bashing itself against the shore. The explanation, in fact, made the poem less wonderful, and I tried not to listen when he explained other poems. He read bits and snippets of “The Wasteland,” though I best remember the mystery of “Journey of the Magi,” read in a quavering, mock-ancient voice I probably imitate, these days, when I read the poem to my students. I sat right beside him, the closer the better. I remember feeling as though I were making something in response to the poem, something clean and deep inside me that was mine and was also somehow connected to him—to his voice—and to the patterned sounds in the air.
In an oddly physical way, not understanding seemed to keep the poems potent. I was charmed. I felt something more mysterious and resonant even than I felt when I listened to music: a possibility beyond the range of ordinary talk, beyond ordinary consciousness (though, of course, I didn’t think in those terms). I felt as though I’d been suddenly made aware of a world of mystery and possibility that existed, not only in the realm of fairy tales and children’s stories, but right here beside my father, and right here inside myself.
For me the essence of poetry has always been this prayer-song power, this power to speak our inner life through rhythmically-intensified sound that simultaneously charms us into and out of ourselves, for a breath, and leaves us more firmly ourselves. Poetry enacts a welding of spiritual and physical, of primal and intellectual, that brings our two energy essences, body and mind, together for one ecstatic moment of life. Of course, this happens rarely: very few poems contain sufficient accuracy of mystery, which is an accuracy of complex feeling across image and line. And the essence of poetry is this dance, a rehearsed, formal cry of the heart. Having felt true poetry, even once, we go looking for it our entire lives.
My father loved to listen to music, too: bebop, in those days, almost entirely. He loved Bud Powell and Theolonious Monk, Monk most of all, and he’d often stay up late listening, jabbing his fingers into the air to simulate particularly jarring Monk chords. I remember, many nights, trying to sleep, while my father, in the living room, blasted his jazz. I cursed him for keeping me awake, and I listened carefully to the many-faceted, insistent music. Do we hear music while we’re sleeping; does it influence our dreams? I remember my parents fighting to those chords, and I remember them laughing, too. The music formed the backdrop to family discussions, to cookouts in the summer and board games on winter afternoons. I loved the way the musicians sometimes called out in their playing. I loved hearing my father call out in pleasure as he listened.
The organic life of poetry is remarkably like that kind of jazz. But poetry is song caught on the page; it is internal song. It does not need to be sounded aloud but must be sounded internally, must be heard, truly heard, in the resonant cavities of the heart.
How do we say the unsayable? How do we hear what can’t be said?
It is of course a cliché to say that we live in an age of unprecedented noise, that we have learned to shut down, many of us, to survive. We close off the outer world and make our own silence, pull away from others, protect ourselves. There is more music in the air than ever before, and it is louder, more basic and less grounded in a deep response to self, less private in its sources. What have we lost? We have more of everything, I think, but we have far less as well, and we’ve forgotten how to listen.
Poetry reminds us, as hardly anything else can, to listen carefully, even if we don’t fully understand what we are listening to or for. Sustained, attentive listening can bring us something that is ours and that is larger than ourselves. And here is where poetry is most valuable: It brings us to ourselves by making us listen. It’s impossible to hear a poem without pausing, breathing both as oneself and another (the poet) and listening to the cadences flowing through the body, echoing there. We must stop. We must breathe. We must listen to the self inside, so far away sometimes, protected in there, atrophying in there, feeling extreme things and growing distant at the same time.
To truly read a poem—any poem—we must breathe with the breath of the poet who wrote it.
Once we remembered old stories in our poems; now we remember our intimate selves; someday we might use poetry to remember that we have intimate selves.
I began writing poems in 1973 or so when, as the quiet kid in the back row of my first writing workshop, I discovered what then felt like magic: a language that gave me power to transform my world and to tell the most potent truths at the same time, a language through which I could reveal myself while I made up stories I could move safely behind. I realized intuitively even then that I could ground myself for a lifetime in the practice of poetry, could be content and even happy in that humble practice. When the other students in the class actually responded to my writings, I was confirmed in my new faith: I could be a poet!
I read everyone, and I filled notebook after notebook. I was lucky to have friends who were jazz musicians, who practiced for hours, every day. They became my models. I emulatd their modesty and workmanlike dedication to their craft. I was inspired by their intelligence. I was inspired by improvisation.
I read Neruda and Vallejo in Robert Bly’s translations, but I also read Eliot and Pound and Creeley and Ted Berrigan and Paul Blackburn and the Objectivists, particularly George Oppen and Charles Reznikoff. Of course I read Whitman and Williams and Blake, Frank O’Hara and Loiuise Bogan; Dickinson and Rukeyser and Rexroth and Whalen. I was interested in everyone. Poetry seemed like some kind of miracle to me then.
My senior year in college I got the chance to work closely with the Finnish-American poet Anselm Hollo. He was gentle and wild, disheveled and brilliant—and he flattered me immensely by treating me as a peer. I remember sitting with him, one afternoon, talking and smoking, when another student neither of us knew burst into the room complaining about having to read so much god-damned poetry. Anselm laughed loudly and told the kid he’d come to the wrong place to complain—“Michael and I are both poets,” he said. I blushed at the high praise, certain it couldn’t yet be true.
Later I found more challenging mentors, chief among them Burton Raffel, the most generous, demanding, intelligent and honest teacher I had, by far. For over twenty years he carefully read and annotated most of the poems I wrote—and I wrote a lot of miserable poems! My gratitude is beyond words.
For the past quarter-century I have taught at Miami Dade College, in downtown Miami, a job that requires a heavy work-load and places very little value on poetry or publication. Thus, though I’ve published a dozen books and chapbooks during that time, I’ve had to discipline myself to get up early every morning, in order to get any writing done. Though difficult at first, this early-morning writing discipline has become one of my great life-pleasures, and I rarely miss a day of it.
And during the past ten years or so, I’ve also worked extensively in collaboration—with visual artists, other writers, and musicians. Of these, my most extensive collaborative experiences have been with visual artists. With three visual-artist friends, I have coordinated the Sweat Broadside project, a south-Florida-based collaboration between writers and artists to create broadsides. Since 2008, more than 150 broadsides have been made, comprising two portfolios. These broadsides have been exhibited at various South Florida galleries as well as in Manhattan, Kansas City, Minnesota and elsewhere. They are part of the permanent collection at the Jaffe Center for the Book.
I have also been involved in collaborations to make handmade books with fellow writers and artists here in Miami, and recently, a number of artist-friends and I have started WAIL (Word and Image Lab), an umbrella organization supporting collaborative projects and letterpress bookmaking.
In my experience, collaboration always makes my work better, either because it challenges me in the moment of creation/revision or because it suggests processes of composition and revision I wouldn’t have otherwise tried. I would say, in fact, that all true collaboration extends the work of its collaborators, hopefully in ways unpredictable at the outset. I go to collaboration, finally, to explore sensibility in way(s) I can’t do by myself. I do it to become just a bit more vulnerable than I would otherwise be, a little less reliant on familiar techniques and strategies. And I also go there to have fun!